“The Nazarene. Did you find him … different?” Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) asks this of Joseph Fiennes’s Roman tribune Clavius early on in the new Biblical film Risen. “I found him dead,” is Clavius’s curt response. They are speaking of the crucifixion itself — an unfussy affair, treated admirably free of sentimentality in this low-key, faith-based drama. It’s the kind of dry exchange that helps lend a quiet authenticity to the film, directed and co-written by Kevin Reynolds. Clavius is a gruff, veteran Roman officer, tasked by Pilate of overseeing Jesus’s entombment and investigating his whereabouts after the prophet’s body goes missing. It perhaps goes without saying that Clavius’s cynicism will eventually be defeated, once he finds out what “really” happened to Jesus. But for much of its running time, Risen plays out like a no-nonsense procedural, as Clavius interrogates a variety of apostles, soldiers, and others, in an effort to get to the truth.
It’s a novel way to tell an oft-told tale. Mostly free of overt piety (at least in its first half), Risen situates itself in the political and spiritual atmosphere of the period: Clavius is busy putting down rebellions left and right; Pilate, worried about an upcoming visit by the Emperor, wants to quell the tensions in the area. A crucified prophet gone missing is the last thing anyone needs right now. “Without a corpse to prove he’s dead, we have a potential Messiah,” says Caiaphas (Stephen Greif), the Jewish high priest. (The Sanhedrin don’t quite get the skewering here that they do in other films like Passion of the Christ, but they are very much in cahoots with the Romans in desperately seeking to suppress any sign of dissent.)
As Clavius investigates, accompanied by his aide-de-camp Lucius (Tom Felton, of Harry Potter fame), Reynolds grounds the film in physical reality as well. We see the mass graves of those executed by the Romans – decaying bodies, wasted faces, sliced-off limbs. (Is this movie really PG-13?) It’s not gratuitous or exploitative, but rather a window into the protagonist’s mind. Clavius has been fighting Rome’s battles for so long, he’s jaded, numb to suffering and pain and carnage. And Fiennes portrays him as a man with a perpetual cloud over his head, with a thousand-yard stare and a terse tongue to match. When asked what he longs for, his response comes wearily: “A day without death.” It’s clear he knows he won’t find it in this life. Though more aloof, Pilate is also resigned to the misery around him. “What does it all matter, really?” he says, looking at a man’s decomposing body. “In a few years, that’s us.” Oh ye of little faith.
That brings us to the Jesus part of this Jesus tale. Exclusively referred to as Yeshua here, he’s played by the part-Maori actor Cliff Curtis, a veteran performer who has covered pretty much every ethnicity on the planet (from an Arab in Three Kings to Pablo Escobar in Blow.) Refreshingly, this is a Jesus who actually looks like he might have lived in ancient Judea. But it’s smart casting for other reasons, too: A constant scene-stealer, Curtis has perfected the art of conveying the world in a simple glance, ideal for a film in which his character is largely a defining absence. We see just a glimpse of his dying face during the crucifixion itself and in little moments throughout. Each time, he seems both approachable and mysterious.
That’s a tough, thin line to walk, but for much of its running time, Risen benefits from Reynolds’s grounded, economical direction. One of the most notoriously beaten-down auteurs of the 1990s, the director made his name with the stylishly silly Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, starring frequent collaborator Kevin Costner. That partnership went south with the catastrophe of Waterworld, a mostly solid, occasionally bloated action-adventure that suffered toxic buzz around its immense price-tag and Costner’s grandiose ways. (This was back when being the most expensive Hollywood film in history was a mark of shame, not a selling point.) Reynolds’s work has been uneven since then, though his hit adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo was a bright spot. While nobody will mistake him for Martin Scorsese, his films usually demonstrate a nice mix of atmosphere and grit. He tells mythic, heroic stories, but he usually finds convincing ways into them, placing us in these worlds.
That works well in Risen … until it doesn’t. As you might expect, the God stuff eventually becomes more pronounced. This is a film produced by Sony’s faith-based handle Affirm Films and aimed at the evangelical market, so we do get some (clunky) pyrotechnics and worshipful looks by the time it’s all over. But still, for a film that could have easily become bogged down in Sunday School reverence, or culture-war opportunism, Risen presents an intriguing, oblique approach to a Bible movie.